Dr. Joao Freire (Editor for Europe, Middle East, and Africa for the Journals “Place Branding” and “Public Diplomacy”)

12.03.2011 - Interview conducted by Kim Cornett

Q1. When developing a place brand, what are the most important concepts to include, in order to ensure success?

The thing is that, when place-branding, you must clearly decide on an objective - who are we targeting? Are we targeting investors, tourists, residents, or students? From there, we can start to consider the variables that are relevant to that target market. The variables to be considered for tourists are different from those considered when targeting investors. We need to start asking these consumers why they travel, and why they choose certain destinations over others. From there, we need to then create an image, based on these variables. We also need to consider who our competitors are, and then assess the motivation of our consumers to consume our brand - we are building our strategy in stages. We need to understand the mechanisms to use to address and to work with these variables. If there is a lack of awareness, we need to address that, and activate the brand locally, using whatever awareness or relevance exists. That is the complexity of building a place-brand, which is much more complex than branding a company. The thing we need to do is to simplify this process, down to a logo and a tagline, while competing with companies for the attention of the consumer - we need to establish our own position that is different from that of our competitors. We need to figure out exactly what we want to communicate and which aspects thereof, to whom we will communicate, and what we want to achieve with this.

Q2.  You work for Brandia Central, and a visit to Brandia Central will show the importance of new media to the company.  How important is new media in creating sustainable place and nation brands?

I think it’s quite important, as TV was in the 1950s and 1960s. New media presents new challenges, and opens new opportunities to interact. You have to be careful how you use it towards your target market, how you transmit this information. There’s a danger here of making false promises, because you will be caught eventually. You have to be more true to your brand. That’s the big difference between now and back when you could sell promises that weren’t supported by reality. Another issue with new media is that it gives a new meaning to the promotion of brands - people don’t want to spend as much time looking at an advertisement. The tourism boards need to understand this - people no longer come home to sit and watch TV like they used to, but they will go on Youtube and spend short periods of time watching different programs, on their iPhones or iPads. I think place-branding is moving away from the hands of tourism boards, and into the hands of real entrepreneurs, who will make use of new media, which allows for more word-of-mouth communication. 

Q3.  You’ve worked a lot on promoting cities in Portugal. Do you believe it’s important to brand cities before promoting a single nation brand?

When you’re promoting a country, you are promoting its culture, which is a very complex issue. It’s a challenge, because we are not politicians, but consultants. When you ask people about Portugal, they will have a set of opinions, and they will be mostly about the government. That’s why it’s easier to brand regions or cities of a country. For instance, we have successfully promoted the Algarve region within Europe, but promoting Portugal would be much more difficult. You need to also know what aspects of a country to promote - I don’t want to go to France because of its technological progress, but because of the food, the art, or the wine. So it is quite difficult to brand a nation, and it’s mainly because of the country’s politics - every few years, we have a new government, and there is a need to show the public that we are doing something new, that we are making progress. There is also the issue of promoting to different countries. The US is seen as the number one brand in the world, but who sees it as such? The UK, France, Brazil - but you cannot really generalize. My strategy is different for different countries - for Spain, I have to consider that we are neighbours. For the US, I have to consider how they see us as a distant, European country. If I am targeting Brazil, I am dealing with a country we colonized. This is the hard part of building a nation brand. 

Q4.  On that note, advertising and branding seem to be confused a lot.  How important is it to create a brand, rather than an advertising campaign?

Advertising is telling who you are, proving who you are.  Branding is about building that. That’s the difference. Advertising is a small part of branding - an element of communication. We can even build a brand without advertising anything - it depends on what we are branding, of course, because at some point, we will need to make use of these means of communication. Advertising is a tool for branding; it helps to communicate to a target audience. 

Q5.  In 2005, you said that the worst thing a place can do is to not try to intervene in the creation of its image. Do you still believe this? And given that the image of popular tourist destinations such as Tunisia or Egypt is now very different, will these countries have to take action to recreate a positive image, or will this come about naturally with the rest of the changes in the region?

For them, it’s wonderful opportunity, because we are seeing a young population forming a new democracy. Egypt, for example, is already seen as one of the most interesting places in the world. And now it has become interesting again, with this fight for democracy. If the country does not actively support this recreation of Egypt’s brand, this brand will remain in the hands of the tour operators, who will continue to exploit the country’s problems for the sake of branding a few attractions, such as the Pyramids, to Western tourists. We need to promote Egypt as a whole country, with a young population of entrepreneurs and hard-working locals. If we focus only on the tourist industry, the country will continue to be exploited, and local jobs will be lost, all for the benefit of a few, wealthy tourists and tour operators. Eventually, tourists will become aware of this exploitation, and will not want to visit this place and support these people. Once again, the initiative behind place-branding is to apply these kinds of procedures - a democratization of the local population. There are so many stakeholders involved, plus consumers are becoming more educated about their options. 

Thank you very much for your time and enjoy the rest of the conference.